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Firearm violence persists in the United States despite innumerable social, political, and economic changes throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries. Collaborative Event Ethnography was used at seven gun shows in three regions of the United States to explore childhood socialization into firearm culture via intergenerational communication of values and views regarding violence, safety, and the use of firearms. Children were observed at all gun shows engaged in activities ranging from standard play to potentially dangerous activity in an environment characterized by bias and controversy. The findings support social learning theory and provide some insight into the role of culture in the development of firearm-related views and elucidate one possible explanation for the etiology of firearm violence committed by some white males.
[I was also struck by] just seeing people in the big cavernous hall—eyeing the goods, pointing these guns into mid-air … You couldn’t not be aware of the racial demographics, which was basically white guys …people [who would] articulate a kind of atavistic, primal notion of what America was about. It wouldn’t just be about guns; it would be about their version of America … [Their] vision of America doesn’t really include everybody.—Uri Friedman (2016)
Firearm violence persists in the United States (U.S.) despite innumerable social, political, and economic changes throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries. The causes of these violence trends, which are disproportionately high relative to similar counties, have been difficult to study for several reasons. Firearms discourse has been highly politicized since the 1970s (Duerringer & Justus, 2016; Hogan & Rood, 2015). Additionally, federal research support for firearms research has been poor since Kellerman and colleagues’ (1993) article indicating that the presence of a firearm in the home increases the risk of non-stranger assaults and homicides (see also Kellerman, 1993). Further, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) fiscal year 1997 budget included restrictions on firearms research, which set off a cascade of events resulting in no federal agency funding this research area (Jamieson, 2013). The extant research in this area tends to focus on anti-gang programs and urban youth, and, generally, research on firearms violence committed by white males focuses on suicide or mental health while ignoring other fertile areas of research, such as broader examinations of firearm culture and socialization. It is critical to address the limitations and gaps in the research related to this extraordinarily expensive public health crisis (Weinberger et al., 2015). The costs associated with firearms violence reach hundreds of billions of dollars annually to cover medical expenses, mental health counseling for victims and families (when accessible), and the investigation, prosecution, and incarceration of perpetrators (Cook & Ludwig, 2000; Corso, Mercy, Simon, Finkelstein, & Miller, 2007; Follman, Lurie, Lee, & West, 2015). This study is intended to address a gap in the literature regarding the origins of firearm views and firearm violence committed by white males, by studying one type of venue where firearm culture thrives. We argue that understanding firearm culture and the origins of firearm views can ultimately help reduce firearm violence.
H. Rap Brown, Director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, explained that "Violence is as American as cherry pie" (Ikenberry & Gold, 1967, p. A1). He astutely highlighted the fact that violence is, and has always been, endemic in the U.S. Firearm violence, in particular, is a pernicious problem and most firearm research is focused on violence.
The U.S. has a violent past, but, in historical terms, the U.S. is in a comparatively safe period. The violent crime rate has decreased by approximately 50% since the early 1990s (Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI], 2016b; Roeder, Eisen, & Bowling, 2015). In 2012, the U.S. had its lowest violent crime rate since 1970, and, in 2011 and 2012, reported the lowest murder and non-negligent manslaughter rates since 1963 (FBI, 2016b). Data indicate that violent crime increased from 2014 to 2015, but remained lower than the 2011 rate (FBI, 2016a). Preliminary data indicate that violent crime increased by 5.3% from January through June 2015 to January through June 2016 (FBI, 2017).
There are a few violence trends that stand out despite the general decrease in violent crime. First, the U.S maintains higher rates of firearm violence than other western, democratic, developed, and high-income countries (Miller, Azrael, & Hemenway, 2013; Richardson & Hemenway, 2011; Zimring & Hawkins, 1999). Second, suicides have increased since 2000 (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention [AFSP], 2016). White males accounted for approximately 70% of completed suicides in 2014 (AFSP, 2016). Females are more likely to attempt suicide, but males are 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide than females (AFSP, 2016). This disparity is likely attributable to the fact that firearms are used in approximately half of completed suicides (AFSP, 2016), and males are more likely to use firearms in suicide attempts than females (CDC, 2016c). White males are also significantly more likely than males of other racial and ethnic groups to use a firearm in a suicide attempt (CDC, 2016c).
Mass shootings are the third violence trend that stands apart from the trend of decreasing violence. These events strike the public as occurring more frequently now than in the past, but experts disagree on whether mass shooting events are occurring with a higher frequency. These differences may be attributable to varying definitions of what constitutes a mass shooting. The Stanford Geospatial Center and the Stanford Libraries developed the Stanford Mass Shootings in America (MSA) dataset to facilitate research on this type of firearm violence.1 The MSA identified 308 mass shootings from August 1966 through April 2016 (Stanford Geospatial Center, 2016). Sixty-one percent of these shootings have occurred since January 2011, despite the aforementioned dramatic decreases in total violent crimes and rates of murder and manslaughter. A majority of these offenses are committed by males (89.9%; Stanford Geospatial Center, 2016). Forty-six percent of the mass shootings in this dataset were committed by white actors, followed by shootings committed by African Americans (25.3%), Asians (5.8%), and Native Americans (0.9%); 21.7% of these shootings were committed by perpetrators whose race or ethnicity could not be identified or people who were classified as “some other race” (Stanford Geospatial Center, 2016). These results are supported by Lemieux (2014) who, using data from Duwe (2007) and Kessler (2013), found that the 73 mass shootings that occurred in the U.S. between 1983 and 2013 were overwhelming committed by males (99%) and Caucasians (66%).
Firearms are disproportionately used in fatal and serious, non-fatal violence incidents compared to other weapons. According to the CDC (2016a), firearms were used in 10.24 deaths per 100,000 (both sexes) and 17.98 male deaths per 100,000 in 2014.2 Despite the 49% decrease in the rate of homicide from 1992 to 2011, the percentage of homicides committed with firearms remained stable at 67% and 79% of homicides with multiple victims were carried out with firearms (Smith & Cooper, 2013). A high rate of non-fatal injuries committed with firearms is also reported. In 2014, there was a rate of 25.49 non-fatal gunshot injuries per 100,000 (both sexes) and a rate of 45.08 non-fatal gunshot injuries per 100,000 males (CDC, 2016b).
The research on firearm violence tends to focus on the proximal causes of firearm violence. A considerable degree of research focuses on evaluating the effectiveness of laws, programs, and interventions intended to prevent or reduce firearm violence by addressing current causal factors (see Makarios & Pratt’s 2012 meta-analysis). Research and program evaluation also tend to focus on specific groups, including gangs (McGarrell et al., 2013) and urban youth (Carter et al., 2015; Petrosino et al., 2015).
Less research focuses on the distal causes of firearm violence. Existing research on distant causal factors indicates that aggressive behavior can be learned (Anderson & Bushman, 2002). For example, perceived parental support for fighting is predictive of aggression, and perceptions of parental attitudes are significantly related to fighting, injuries from fighting, and weapon carrying (Orpinas, Murray, & Kelder, 1999). Research also suggests that family may influence views on firearms. Vittes, Sorenson, and Gilbert (2003) found that residing in a home with a handgun and living with a member of the National Rifle Association (NRA) reduced support for firearm regulation. People may be socialized to view carrying firearms as an integral part of daily life (Thompson & Stidham, 2010). Additional research indicates that firearm ownership is a part of a pattern of learned behavior regarding beliefs about people of other races and ethnicities (Thompson & Stidham, 2010; see also Bankston & Thompson, 1989; Delmas & Bankston, 1993; Wright, Rossi, & Daly, 1983).
Traditionally, research on the causes of and ways of preventing firearm violence has focused on youth in gangs and youth in urban areas. In one respect, this makes sense, because these youth are at an increased risk for involvement in firearm violence. However, this research focus often results in a focus on perpetrators of color. Little violence research has focused on firearm violence committed by white males except for suicides committed by elderly men. Public discourse on firearm violence committed by white males, especially violent public events, tends to quickly and inaccurately turn to mental disorder (Metzl & MacLeish, 2015). Firearm violence committed by white males is framed as the behavior of “insane” individuals, but violence committed by people of color is framed as a reflection of black communal aggression (Metzl & MacLeish, 2015). This discourse allows the U.S. public to avoid more difficult and uncomfortable discussions about our history and culture, and to propagate the rhetoric regarding race and propensity for violence. These discussions regarding firearm violence committed by white males also often point out that many of these events were committed with legally-purchased firearms, but very little substantive discussion occurs after these revelations. These trends have led some researchers to suggest that “…weapon use needs to be understood within the wider social context” (Brennan & Moore, 2009, p. 223).
“Socialization … [is a] learning process [and] entails how standardized attitudes, values, and beliefs are culturally transmitted and influence behavioral patterns" (Taylor, 2009, p. 15; see also Durkheim, 2008/1915; Geertz, 1973; Kohn, 2004; Seidman, 2004). Altheimer and Boswell (2012) examined the relationship between firearm availability and violence across 21 countries, including the U.S., and found that socio-historical and cultural processes influence how people use firearms. Cultural processes, specifically, “may influence knowledge of weapons … as well as situational definitions of when it is appropriate to use a weapon to injure or kill someone” (Altheimer & Boswell, 2012, p. 688; Corzine, Huff-Corzine, & Whitt, 1999; Kopel, 1992). Lemieux (2014) explored the effect of firearm culture on firearm violence and mass shootings in the U.S. He identified a relationship between firearm culture and the rate of murder by firearm in the Southern region of the U.S., but he used military expenditures and movie revenue as proxy measures for firearm culture (Lemieux, 2014).
Not all firearm owners commit violent crimes. However, there is a strong link between high rates of firearm ownership and firearm violence. The U.S., in particular, has high rates of private firearm ownership and high rates of firearm violence (Blithe & Lanterman, 2017). Studying cultures with high rates of firearm ownership is one important way to learn more about firearm violence (Ott, Aoki, & Dickinson, 2011). Violence of all types is commonly linked to cultural factors. Many children grow up immersed in violence or, as Perry (1997) described, incubated in terror. Perry argued that pervasive experiences with violence could lead to cycles of violence. He claimed, "experience, not genetics, results in the critical neurobiological factors associated with violence" (p. 124). In their study of rape culture, Phipps, Ringrose, Renold, and Jackson (2018) found that violent group mentality and the acceptance of violent cultural discourse led to a normalization of violence against women. Thus, culture, and particularly cultures that are discursively and physically seeped in violence, such as gun shows, are important to study as a potential factor in violent views and behavior.
Gun shows comprise a significant proportion of the largely unregulated secondary firearms market (Hemenway, 2004). According to Cook and Ludwig (1996), between 30% and 40% of all firearm sales occur in the secondary market (see also Wintemute 2013). While research suggests that a small percentage (3.9%-9%) of firearms are purchased at gun shows (Cook & Ludwig, 1996; Hepburn, Miller, Azrael, & Hemenway, 2007), research also suggests that undocumented private sales are ubiquitous and illegal straw purchases are common at gun shows in states that have comparatively lax gun laws (Wintemute, 2007; Wintemute, 2013).
The best available data suggest that an extraordinary number of people attend the 2,000 to 5,200 gun shows held each year (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, 2007). Gun shows are an understudied environment despite the number of people attending them annually. This is likely due, in part, to the suspicion of strangers or people perceived to be out-group members (Olmstead, 1988; Taylor, 2009). When gun shows are studied, the focus is typically on crimes committed with firearms purchased at gun shows (Braga, Wintemute, Pierce, Cook, & Ridgeway, 2012; Cole, 2008; Hemenway, 2004; Koper, 2014; Wintemute, Hemenway, Webster, Pierce, & Braga, 2010). Considerably less gun show research focuses on firearm culture or subculture (Kohn, 2004; Taylor, 2009; Yamane, 2017) and stigma management practices (Blithe & Lanterman, 2017; Taylor, 2009). Very little research focuses on who is attending gun shows and why that may matter; only Hemenway (2004) mentions the presence of a young child at a single gun show.
Research on firearms violence and crimes committed with firearms is primarily quantitative. The National Research Collaborative on Firearm Violence highlighted the need for qualitative firearms research, particularly ethnographic study of select populations, to identify factors that influence individual and group firearm behavior (Weiner et al., 2007). Kohn (2004) explained that ethnographic research is valuable because it "provide[s] an understanding of behavior" which is often lost in purely quantitative research (p. 5). In other words, the results of ethnographic research can help us understand why we observe particular trends and this ethnographic study is lacking in firearms research.
This study addresses gaps in the firearms literature by providing a qualitative analysis of group firearm behavior. In this paper, we examine gun shows, venues with pronounced firearm culture, to identify possible connections between childhood socialization into firearm culture and firearm violence by white males later in life. Understanding cultural aspects of firearm violence is important to understanding firearm violence itself—stereotypes and myths abound about who commits these crimes, and sorting out where and how culture becomes a factor is necessary.
Social process theorists assert that to understand social behavior, it is imperative to understand how people define their reality through interaction with other people (Walsh, 2015). This process includes individual and collective dimensions, and verbal and non-verbal language and symbols. Akers’ (1998) social learning theory (SLT) is a social process theory that provides a framework to explore the possibility that firearm views and behaviors are learned through socialization via intergenerational communication and activities. Akers’ SLT reflects an amalgamation of the symbolic interactionism of Sutherland’s (1947) differential association theory, by retaining the concepts of differential association and definitions, and Bandura’s (1973, 1977, 1986) early social learning theory, which combined cognitive learning theory and behavioral learning theory, by including the concepts of imitation and differential reinforcement (Akers & Sellers, 2009). SLT facilitates the exploration of the mechanisms and social dimension of learning various behaviors. Put simply, SLT suggests that individuals learn values and behavior patterns by observing and imitating other people, especially their early caregivers.
Differential association has normative and interactional dimensions (Akers & Sellers, 2009). The normative dimension is the conglomeration of norms and values to which an individual is exposed through the interactional dimension (Akers & Sellers, 2009, p. 90). The interactional dimension is the “direct association and interaction with others who engage in certain kinds of behavior [and convey or model certain values], as well as the indirect association with more distant reference groups” (Akers & Sellers, 2009, p. 90). The direct associations (e.g., family, friends) and indirect reference groups with which a person interacts (e.g., other groups in the community engaged in certain activities) provide the primary social context in which learning occurs. Akers and Sellers (2009) explain that “associations that occur earlier (priority), last longer and occupy more of one’s time (duration), take place more often (frequency), and involve others with whom one has the more important and closer relationships (intensity) will have the greater effect on behavior” (p. 90). This suggests that interactions in the immediate family that occur early in life will have the greatest impact on a person’s norms and values.
Definitions are the meanings that a person attaches to particular behaviors (Akers & Sellers, 2009). These meanings can be approving or neutralizing and increase the likelihood of an act or unfavorable and decrease the likelihood of the act, whether or not the acts are considered right or wrong by conventional standards. These definitions function as discriminative stimuli, which operate as cues to the individual about what responses are appropriate in a given situation and are developed through imitation and differential reinforcement (Akers & Sellers, 2009).
SLT asserts that people learn behavior, in part, by imitating behavior that they observe. The observation of behavior in primary groups, such as the family, has a significant impact on the acquisition of either pro-social or deviant behavior (Akers & Sellers, 2009). Akers and Sellers (2009) argue that the observation of behavior in primary groups has more of an effect on the “initial acquisition and performance of novel behavior than the maintenance or cessation of behavioral patterns once established, but it continues to have some effect in maintaining behavior” (p. 93).
Behavior that is initially learned through differential association, directed via definitions, and practiced through imitation will ultimately be maintained or discarded as a function of differential reinforcement. Differential reinforcement occurs through the tally or “balance of anticipated or actual rewards and punishment” (Akers & Sellers, 2009, p. 91). The exchanges between people, especially in primary groups, represent the setting in which rewards or punishments are distributed. Specifically, the “words, responses, presence, and behavior of other persons directly reinforce behavior … [and] provide the setting for reinforcement” (Akers & Sellers, 2009, p. 92). This setting permits the discriminative stimuli developed through definitions to operate and determine whether or not a person will maintain a behavior. Akers and Sellers (2009) indicate that the rewards one derives through differential reinforcement can be symbolic and that they can reflect or fulfill “ideological, religious, [or] political … goals” (p. 93).
Collaborative Event Ethnography (CEE) was used in this study. CEE is used to study dynamic, large-scale sites (Brosius & Campbell, 2010; Büscher, 2014; Ganesh & Stohl, 2013). The study of large-scale sites can yield useful information, but they present significant logistical constraints. It is difficult for individual researchers to document, make sense of what they observe, and situate the observations in a “broader analytical perspective” when studying large, dynamic locations (Brosius & Campbell, 2010, p. 247). CEE addresses this challenge by adopting a different approach than traditional ethnography, which involves deep immersion in a particular community or culture. Instead, CEE allows researchers to achieve an “ethnographic symmetry” (Robbins, 2002), by “studying up” at large-scale sites (Gusterson, 1997; Nader, 1972) and observing macro-level trends while also “studying down” and immersing oneself in the observation of individual experiences and interactions (Brosius & Campbell, 2010).
Collaborative observation and a multi-site approach are also key CEE components. CEE requires that researchers work together to document observations at individual sites and across multiple sites. The multi-site approach involves following people, things, and metaphors across sites (Brosius & Campbell, 2010; Marcus, 1995). The multi-site approach is critical to understanding social phenomena, because, as Hannerz (2003) explains, “sites are connected with one another in such ways that the relationships between them are as important … as the relationships within them” (p. 206). We adopted a collaborative, multi-site approach to compare and contrast themes across gun shows to explore firearm culture.
We also adopted a team approach to data collection, analysis, and verification. We attended most of the shows together and, sometimes, with research assistants. The team approach contributed to the richness of the data. The first author is a criminologist and the second author is a communication scholar. We have different subject-matter expertise and generally adopt diverse methods, so we compiled a wider range of observations than either of us would have individually generated. Experts agree that multidisciplinary teams enhance the quality and breadth of data collection and analysis (Curry, Nembhard, & Bradley, 2009; Denzin & Lincoln, 2000; Mays & Pope, 1995; Patton, 1999).
We conducted observations at seven gun shows in three states (Nevada, Ohio, and Virginia), representing regional variation, for a total of 13 discrete observations. Four different organizers hosted the shows; a variety which provides a more comprehensive picture of gun culture than shows hosted by a single organizer. The two largest shows featured more than 1,000 displays over 1.5 miles. We visited shows on Fridays (seven observations), Saturdays (two observations), and Sundays (four observations) to identify whether or not attendance or activities varied by standard workweek day or weekend days. We also visited shows at varying times throughout the day. Shows typically operate from 9:00 AM to 5:00 or 6:00 PM on Fridays and Saturdays. Generally, Sundays feature shorter hours of operation; the shows we visited on Sundays were open from 9:00 AM to 3:00 or 4:00 PM. Our results are based on two Friday morning observations, three early afternoon and two late afternoon observations on Friday, two mid-afternoon Saturday observations, two Sunday morning observations, and two Sunday afternoon observations.
The observation periods ranged from one hour and fifteen minutes to two and one-half hours. Our activities included walking through shows together and separately, observing displays and interactions, listening to conversations, collecting print materials, and, sometimes, interacting with other attendees and vendors. Observations were documented via scratch notes and headnotes during the shows (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002). We wrote separate, detailed field notes after each show. Collectively, we generated more than 50 single-spaced pages of field notes and collected approximately 200 artifacts, including flyers, booklets, pamphlets, business cards, and stickers.
The data were evaluated via thematic content analysis. We adopted an inductive approach, analyzing the field notes and artifacts together and identifying themes in the data. First, we assigned each datum a category. Second, we evaluated the categories, ultimately refining and collapsing some categories. Third, we reviewed the categories until we determined that we identified distinct themes in the data. Finally, we verified the data and categories through the triangulation process. We compared both researchers’ field notes, research assistants’ field notes, and artifacts to ensure convergence across data sources (Patton, 2015).
We identified several themes which suggest social learning occurs at gun shows. In the following sections, we present the findings for the following themes: (1) families with children attending and working at shows; (2) children engaged in a variety of activities, ranging from normal child play to potentially dangerous behavior; and (3) an environment characterized by racism, anti-Semitism, sexism and gender stereotypes, historical and political manipulation, and the conflation of safety and aggression.
Adults and families with children were observed at every show. Children were seen attending shows with adult men or in what appeared to be family units. The children ranged in age from infants in strollers to teenagers. Minors, from approximately 10 to 12 years of age to teenagers, were also observed working or assisting adults at vendor booths. They were engaged in a variety of activities, including handling ammunition, selling conducted energy devices (CEDs),3 and modeling concealed carry purses. Children were observed at shows on weekends and Fridays during normal school hours, which suggests that some children attended gun shows instead of school. Minors attending and working at gun shows, as well as the adults accompanying them, were overwhelmingly white.
Children were observed engaging in a variety of activities from playing and bonding with adults to participating in objectively dangerous activity. Every show had booths and tables with standard children’s toys, including stuffed animals, coloring books and crayons, geodes, brightly-colored jewelry, and remote-controlled vehicles. Children were observed expressing interest in or playing with these toys. Juvenile and adult male pairs were ubiquitous. We also observed some of these male children engaged in bonding activities with adult males. For example, a father was observed in the company of a son, who appeared to be approximately age 12 and attending his first gun show. The boy exclaimed, “Oh, dad, this is better than you ever described!” At another show, we observed three generations of men engage in what appeared to be a rite of passage. A middle-aged man stood with his arm around the shoulder of a smiling boy who appeared to be around age 15. A vendor handed an antique rifle to an elderly man who turned to the boy and said, “This is why we call this a legacy gun. I will give it to you. Someday, you will give this to your grandson.”
Minors were observed engaged in a lot of unsupervised activity. At each show, we observed children, some of them quite young, walking around without adults, suggesting that they were permitted to do so or that their respective adults were distracted and the distraction created situations in which children could wander off unsupervised. At every show, children of varying ages were observed conversing with vendors and handling firearms and knives, many of them unsupervised by parents or guardians. We also observed Boy Scouts at one show selling popcorn at a table near the front doors of the hall and walking through the show soliciting customers.
Children of all ages were also observed witnessing or participating in potentially dangerous activity. We witnessed adults pointing firearms at other people, which runs contrary to safe firearm practices, in view of children. We also observed teenage boys handle firearms in unsafe ways, such as pointing them at other people; they were engaging in behavior similar to the adults around them, suggesting that they learned this behavior at some point. In one scenario, two young girls were seen grabbing knives from a vendor table and pretending to stab each other. Their father would turn around and instruct them to cease the behavior. They would resume this behavior as soon as he returned to his discussion with the vendor and the vendor did not intervene in what was an imminently dangerous situation.
Firearms, especially handguns, are now available in a variety of colors. There are also several companies that produce colored toy guns that are indistinguishable from real guns. We observed these firearms at every gun show. Children find them visually appealing and are drawn to both the toy and real colored guns. We witnessed children commenting on and handling brightly colored and rhinestone encrusted “Hello Kitty” guns. We also observed children, assisted by adults, shooting rubber band guns, which may be interpreted as initial socialization into firearm culture.
Finally, some of the shows sold alcohol. At these shows, alcohol service began as soon as the shows opened at 9:00 AM. Children witnessed adults drink alcohol and handle firearms, which is also an inherently dangerous combination of activities. In other words, children observed adults model unsafe firearm behaviors that they may later imitate.
Children were exposed to racist and anti-Semitic visual and verbal communication in profusion. Racism and anti-Semitism were ubiquitous. We observed abundant displays and objects that reflected or touted racist views. At every show, we observed American Confederacy objects. At some, we saw men dressed as Confederate soldiers walking around. Every show included vendors selling materials about the value of slavery, Sambo and Mammy objects, and images of former President Obama manipulated to look like Sambo or a gorilla. We also observed ‘Jap Hunting Licenses,’ copies of Bugliosi and Gentry’s Helter Skelter (1974) about Manson’s views on race war, depictions of Muslims with weapons and in suicide vests, and items emblazoned with the phrase, ‘No more free stuff. Illegals out.’ Anti-Semitism was also a consistent theme across shows. We observed a tremendous amount of Nazi paraphernalia, including flags, full uniforms, common and rare medals, copies of Hitler’s Mein Kampf (1925, 1926), and items and uniform components with the insignia for the Nazi SS, known for their especially hostile view of Jewish people. Show attendees were also overheard freely discussing how great it was to find these rare objects to complete collections and vendors conveying pride with regard to “selling history.”
Sexism and stereotypes. Sexism and gender stereotypes were also common themes across shows. Objects about women and for women were hypersexualized. Women were depicted as having long flowing hair with large breasts, tiny waists, and large, pert buttocks in high-heeled shoes. Clothing and concealed-carry purses for women were almost universally pink or in animal print and covered in rhinestones. We also observed themes at the intersection of sexism and both racism and political manipulation. For example, we interacted with female vendors attempting to sell CEDs to women by continually triggering them and relaying stories about how women must protect themselves from being raped by African American men, trafficking in racial and gender stereotypes. One of us noted that this sales scheme operates like classical conditioning, repeatedly pairing phenomena. We also observed myriad manipulated images of Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat who advocates a modicum of gun control, with handgun barrels redesigned to look like male genitalia in her mouth with “Lube Girl” scrolled across the images. Children were exposed to gender stereotypes and distorted images of women throughout the venues and, at no point, did we hear adults discourage these stereotypes or images.
We observed, independently and in combination, historical and political manipulation. The Betsy Ross flag, the flag with 13 stripes and 13 stars in a circle, as well as the Gadsden flag, the yellow flag with the coiled snake emblazoned with, “Don’t Tread on Me” were displayed at all shows. The First Navy Jack, a red and white striped flag with an outstretched snake and the phrase, “Don’t Tread on Me” was also observed at some shows. Both versions of the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag stem from a 1751 article in the Pennsylvania Gazette written by Benjamin Franklin about convict transportation, or the practice of transporting criminals from England to the American colonies. This flag was initially emblazoned with the phrase, “JOIN, or DIE,” and various versions of this flag have been used by the United States Navy at multiple points in U.S. history (Streufert, 1994). These symbols reflect early American Independence, patriotism, and fighting spirit, but do not have anything to do with firearms, per se. Instead, these symbols have been co-opted by a segment of the American public that believes that the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States confers unfettered rights to firearm ownership. Another common theme across shows included items painted or covered in the modern American flag. For example, we saw a rifle painted in an American flag motif, as well as images of items decorated in this way, at NRA tables.
We regularly observed the manipulation or misattribution of quotes to serve a particular purpose. One quote from George Washington, in particular, was frequently manipulated. The spurious quote reads, “A free people ought not only be armed and disciplined, but they should have sufficient arms and ammunition to maintain a status of independence from any who might attempt to abuse them, which would include their own government.” This quote is partially accurate. According to the Mount Vernon Library, this quote is how Washington’s First Annual Message to Congress on the State of the Union begins, but it is then “manipulated into a differing context and the remaining text is inaccurate” (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association [MVLA], 2016). The actual text of Washington’s speech reads:
A free people ought not only to be armed but disciplined; to which end a uniform and well-digested plan is requisite; and their safety and interest require that they should promote such manufactories as tend to render them independent of others for essential, particularly military, supplies (MLVA, 2016).
Another frequently observed spurious quote regarding the importance of firearms and attributed to Washington reads, “Firearms stand next in importance to the Constitution itself. They are the American people's liberty, teeth, and keystone under independence.” According to the Mount Vernon Library, there is no evidence supporting this statement as an assertion from Washington—it is neither a quote nor is it even close to any utterance included in written materials or speeches (MLVA, 2016).
Western imagery was common across shows. In some cases, materials referenced the simplicity and virtues of Western life and cowboy culture. Other materials highlighted the benefits of life in the Wild West. A point highlighted in these materials and of interest to those discussing these materials was the ability to live a life free from intervention of the law, generally, and from government regulation of firearms, in particular.
A theme observed at every show was the equation of former President Obama and Hitler. Those advancing this argument via written materials and in discussion assert that Hitler disarmed the populace, which is the only reason World War II occurred and, for those who believe in the Holocaust, the reason that people of the Jewish faith were subject to genocide. They assert that President Obama, and anyone else advocating any degree of firearm regulation, are attempting to disarm the populace as Hitler did, which will render them susceptible to genocide. However, this argument sends mixed messages to observers. The argument that Hitler was despicable for disarming the populace coexists with the equally accepted argument that Hitler was a wise man for seeking to exterminate Jewish people. We observed no attempt to advance a nuanced argument regarding Hitler or to reconcile these seemingly contradictory perspectives. Related to firearms and religion, we observed vendors selling materials that equate gun control and attacks on Christianity. In some cases, vendors displayed materials suggesting that firearm regulation was intended to facilitate a holocaust of Christians, which is happening because former President Obama is Muslim. However, we observed no reference to other politicians in these materials. At one show, we saw children’s books about Christianity, the virtues of firearms, and the evil of gun control.
Finally, we observed displays for the Oath Keepers at most shows. Generally, the Oath Keepers appeal to a sub-population of active military, veterans, and first responders, particularly law enforcement officers. These populations swore an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States and to uphold the law, and will not obey orders that they view to be unconstitutional, including disarming U.S. citizens. For some people in these groups, this includes any attempt at firearm regulation.
Children attending these events were subject to these historical inaccuracies and misrepresentations. We did not observe a single instance of an adult with a child correcting these representations. It is possible that the adults may not be aware that vendors were presenting an inaccurate representation of history, which increases the likelihood that these inaccuracies will be reinforced at home.
In total, of the thousands of displays we observed, we saw three displays about gun safes, one display about recording firearms information, one display about keeping firearms away from children, and one table about the Veterans Affairs Crisis Line. Otherwise, all of the tables, displays, and goods framed discussions about safety as being aggressive. These materials advanced the use of firearms and violence as problem-solving methods and asserted that there are two types of people in the world—hunters and the hunted. These perspectives send two messages. First, if you are not preparing to defend yourself, then you are allowing yourself to be a victim. Second, the best defense is a good offense. It is better to be aggressive and strike first than to wait and observe how people act. At no point did we observe adults explaining to children under their supervision that they should observe behavior before deciding how to engage people. There appeared to be an uncritical acceptance of the aggression narrative.
The only significant differences observed across gun shows relate to Western imagery. Two Friday afternoon observations were made at a show hosted by a particular organizer in Nevada. These shows featured more typically Western or cowboy items than other shows, including cowboy hats, chaps, cowboy boots, spurs, and animal hides and pelts. The increased representation of these items at shows hosted by this organizer reflected the cowboy archetype (Hemenway, 2004) and the predominance of the Western or cowboy firearm subculture (Kohn, 2004; Taylor, 2009). All of the enumerated themes were observed at these shows but were eclipsed by the Western or cowboy subculture.
Firearm violence is a pernicious problem that continues to plague the United States despite innumerable social, political, and economic changes. The reasons for the persistence of this public safety and public health problem have been elusive. We elected to explore firearm behavior in an environment in which firearms are theoretically sold through legal channels to investigate possible explanations for this phenomenon. Collectively, the imagery and exchanges we observed promoted racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, gender stereotypes, historical and political manipulation; conflated safety and aggression; and conveyed the messages that protecting unfettered rights to possess firearms is patriotic, attempts to regulate firearms are undemocratic, it is acceptable to use force to resist firearm regulation, and, in some cases, it is acceptable to use firearms to address some problems and some people with whom you disagree. We also viewed many children attending or working at shows with adults, which facilitates intergenerational communication of messages about the use of firearms, violence, and safety in an environment propagating biased views. These observations also provide support for social learning theory and identify one mechanism through which some white males may be learning to use firearms to effect certain types of violence.
Children were at gun shows with adults or families, supporting the interactional dimension of differential association. The normative dimension was supported by adults and families taking children to an environment supportive of a specific set of norms. Many of these children were quite young—children in strollers and elementary-school age—lending support for the priority element. These associations last longer, occupy more time (duration), occur more often (frequency), and involve people with whom children have important relationships (intensity) thereby having a greater effect on behavior.
We did not tap into children’s attitudes or definitions, but we observed their environment and behavior. They were exposed to an environment that is supportive of firearms, indisputably irresponsible contact with firearms, racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, manipulated history, political manipulation in isolation and in relation to Christianity, and a discourse of fear—the view that violence is imminent and that the best way to defend oneself is to be aggressive and strike first. We also witnessed their behavior—they were mostly unaffected by the proximity to firearms, they were interested in firearms, and we often saw them touching firearms and engaging in unsafe firearm behavior, suggesting that they were comfortable with or unafraid of firearms.
In some cases, children received overt positive reinforcement from parents, grandparents, and vendors (e.g., language, smiling, arm around the shoulder) supporting differential reinforcement. In other cases, their behavior was reinforced via people around them engaging in similar behavior and neither adult attendees nor vendors providing negative feedback on their behavior (e.g., underage handling of firearms, pointing firearms at people) or some of the characteristics of the environment (e.g., racism). The mere presence of their parents or guardians in this environment and the absence of negative feedback regarding messages communicated in that environment may be interpreted as tacit approval of particular ideologies—my adult brought me here, so this must be acceptable.
We observed less support for imitation due to the restrictions of the environment, the prohibition of additional data collection, and the absence of a longitudinal research component, but it was still evident. For example, we witnessed children and teenagers observe a parent’s behavior and then engage in it (e.g., the way an adult looks at or examines weapons or makes inquiries to vendors; improperly handling firearms). Imitation is the most important in the initial acquisition of behavior, which is more of a concern in this study due to the younger ages of most of the children we observed.
In sum, our observations present a picture in which some children, particularly white males, are socialized in an environment where bias, firearms, and depictions of violence are normalized. Additionally, aggression, violence, and firearms are promoted as methods for addressing fear or perceived problems. The confluence of these themes provides some insight into how some white males may be learning to use firearms to effect self-harm or violence on others. Certainly, not all young men who use firearms to cause harm previously attended gun shows and not all boys who attend gun shows perpetrate violence later in life; however, some children are exposed to messages which suggest violence is acceptable and desirable, via the diffusion of behavior. They may be in differential association with peers who have attended shows and, as Warr (2002) explained, these associations include virtual peer groups identified via the Internet, news, and entertainment media. These norms may influence their definitions of views and behavior that they imitate and for which they receive reinforcement from the same peers. Given past research on the influence of culture on knowledge and behavior (Durkheim, 2008/1915; Geertz, 1973; Kohn, 2004; Seidman, 2004; Taylor, 2009), including firearm behavior (Altheimer & Boswell, 2012; Corzine et al., 1999; Kopel, 1992; Lemieux, 2014) and violence, generally (Perry, 1997; Phipps et al., 2018), it is critical that we consider more thoroughly the potential impact of allowing minors to attend events that transmit biased and violent messages related to firearms, such as gun shows.
These study findings provide insight into how certain firearm behaviors may develop, but the study design featured three limitations. First, the shows we attended may not be representative of all gun shows. We selected shows in three states in different regions of the country. We also sought out shows hosted by different organizers to diversify the type of wares sold at the shows and, by extension, the attendees attracted to the shows. These efforts were intended to ensure variation in the aspects of firearm culture at each show, but it is possible that these efforts were inadequate to ensure diversity. Second, our sample featured demographic homogeneity. The population we observed was unintentionally and overwhelmingly male and white. A small proportion of vendors and attendees at each show were female and were often accompanied by males; we observed very few people of color at these shows. It is possible that this demographic distribution reflects insufficient variation in show selection; it is also possible that gun show participation is a primarily white male activity. In either case, it is possible that the perspectives and behaviors observed at gun shows may vary with the diversification of vendors and attendees. Finally, we only collected observational data. The initial study design, approved by the Institutional Review Board, included gun show observations, as well as anonymous surveys and interviews about firearm safety and violence conducted with gun show attendees. We contacted the organizers of three shows to request permission and purchase vendor tables. In each case, the show organizers thought that our questions were neutral, but denied our requests. The organizers feared that asking show attendees about their views on firearm safety and violence would render them, “aggressive and violent.” The show organizers felt that they could not guarantee our safety in the venues or the parking lots, so they refused to sell table space to us. Therefore, we were unable to collect additional data from show attendees.
The most obvious policy implication suggested by these results is to require that people must be at least 18 years of age to be admitted to gun shows. The most efficacious way to implement this reform would be through federal law, which would prevent states from avoiding or diluting the reform. This reform is also more easily enforced than other possible reforms. Gun show organizers would be responsible for checking government-issued identification, and law enforcement agencies could periodically conduct undercover operations to ensure that minors are not present at the shows in the same way they conduct undercover operations at venues that sell or serve alcohol. This reform will not prevent exposure to biased attitudes or dangerous firearm behaviors in the home, but it can reduce unintentional or concentrated exposure to the phenomena identified in this study.
These findings support the role that social learning may play in certain types of firearm violence committed by some white males and suggest some avenues of inquiry regarding the presence and behavior of children at gun shows, whether and how suicide is discussed, and how firearm violence is discussed and portrayed in all forms of media. The findings also identified particular subcultures within the overarching firearm culture. Future work should identify how firearm subcultures differ, and how children are impacted. Other scholarship could focus on the perpetrators of firearm violence to learn more about their early socialization into firearm culture or experience at gun shows.
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Jennifer L. Lanterman, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her research interests include the institutional and community-based management and treatment of high-risk and high-need offenders, the etiology and management of firearm violence, and applied ethics. Her work has been published in journals, including Criminal Justice and Behavior, Criminology and Public Policy, Feminist Criminology, Justice Research and Policy, Studies in Social Justice, and The Prison Journal.
Sarah J. Blithe, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her research interests include social justice issues, particularly organizational and policy inequalities; occupational identities; and feminist pedagogy. Her work has been published in academic journals such as Human Relations, Management Communication Quarterly, Women’s Studies in Communication, Women & Language, and Studies in Social Justice. Recent projects include her book, Gender Equality and Work Life Balance: Glass Handcuffs and Working Men in the U.S. and a two-year study of firearm culture.
An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2016 meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology in Vancouver, British Columbia.